Two sector experts tell Greg Pitcher how the mixing and blending market has changed during the pandemic and where it is looking to add more value to process engineering plants in the future.
While the global pandemic has caused many people around the world to stand still over the last 12 months, it has had the opposite effect on one traditionally comatose sector. “Although the mixing and blending market typically changes on a timescale of decades, 2020 was an unusual year for many reasons,” says Peter Brown [pictured below], chief executive of Derbyshire-based equipment supplier Maelstrom Advanced Process Technologies.
“A number of Maelstrom’s customers seem to have been using 2020 to focus on research and development, sometimes exploring new areas or resurrecting old ones that were shelved due to the pressures of production. This seems to have been reflected in the wider market too, with companies using the lockdowns and increased home working to allow employees time to develop new processes and approaches.”
This hive of behind-the-scenes activity is driving change in the way process firms look to carry out their mixing and blending, as they seek a competitive advantage during a tough economic period.
“Much of the process industry continues to focus on process intensification as a way of migrating traditional batch operations to smallerfootprint, more energy-efficient inline operations,” comments Brown. “In some industries this is already well advanced, whereas in others it has hardly begun.”
Process engineers are continuing to put pressure on their mixing and blending equipment to reduce particle sizes, waste and variation, while increasingly seeking to make more use of limited resources.
“The issues of space and energy constraints are becoming increasingly important,” Brown adds. “The high cost per square metre of factory floor and the pressure to make processes as energy efficient as possible are forcing some rethinking and driving the idea of process intensification.
“This is still largely about the shift from batch to inline processes but it also affects other process decisions such as just-in-time processing to minimise the amount of material sitting in large, agitated vessels.”
A key mixing and blending challenge when shifting production to single-pass inline processing is the need to meter each ingredient into the continuous stream, which is often under pressure, Brown says.
“For liquid additives, the use of positive displacement metering pumps with loss-in weight or flowmeter-controlled proportional integral derivative loops can provide extremely high accuracy at reasonable costs.
“However, the addition of solids such as powders under pressure is a major challenge as they cannot be pumped. Producers are often resorting to staging their processes by pre-mixing solids into liquids in vessels prior to injecting them into the inline mixture. This is not ideal as the powder-liquid mixing requires an extra vessel and eliminates many of the process intensification benefits.”
Mixing technology is going through evolution rather than revolution, according to Brown, with a key point of differentiation for manufacturers being how they apply existing machinery in new ways to solve their latest problems.
“An example of this would be Maelstrom’s EMT twin-screw extrudermixer, which provides inline metered powder inclusion and paste mixing to allow powders to be mixed into pressurised lines.
“Maelstrom was finding that some of its customers were using complex and costly twin screw designs intended for plastics to do simple blending and metering tasks. The EMT was developed to solve this specific problem and Maelstrom recognised that it also provided a wider capability to add powders to inline mixtures as metered feeds.”
Elsewhere in the downtime rethinking of the factory, the falling cost of sensors and the rise of sophisticated automation technology are being harnessed to boost production processes.
“More advanced customers are looking for ways of integrating their existing processes into Industry 4.0 initiatives where data from sensors and control systems can be used to monitor and model performance for predictions of yield and maintenance issues among other things,” says Brown.
Existing physical constraints hold some manufacturers back from this advancement – but not all.
“Those lucky enough to be specifying new production facilities are seeking much greater use of standardised sensors and feedback systems.
“Mixer manufacturers need to keep pace with these changes to ensure that data derived from their machines can be translated into useful inputs for analysis.”
A number have been using 2020 to focus on research and development, sometimes exploring new areas or resurrecting old ones that were shelved due to the pressures of production
Peter Brown, chief executive, Maelstrom Advanced Process Technologies
This is just one of the ways that mixer and blender providers are being put under pressure to find clever ways of adapting to a changing world.
“The reality nowadays is that important mixing innovations are relatively rare, and many types of equipment are seen as generic, their patents having expired decades ago. This means that mixer suppliers are trying to differentiate themselves on their understanding of particular mixing problems; their ability to support and handhold customers through the specifying, purchasing and post-installation phases of supply; and their ability to do this on an international basis.
“Some suppliers have recognised the push towards process intensification and single-pass inline processing by combining mixers with pumps, metering systems and controls to form complete systems. Also, as customers have outsourced much of their own internal engineering capability, they need to work with suppliers that can offer turnkey solutions.”
Looking ahead, as the vaccines are rolled out and the lockdown eased, Brown hopes to see a boost for UK manufacturers.
“There is sure to be some bounce-back effect from the pent-up demand for new equipment,” he says. “Engineers returning from home working or furlough will be looking to accelerate projects that were delayed or suspended in 2020.
“However, cash is expected to be tight in many sectors for some time to come and in the short term there may be a focus on upgrading and enhancing existing equipment rather than expansion.”
New pressures present new challenges for Silverson
“Obviously this last year has been hugely challenging,” says Chris Ryan, marketing manager at Buckinghamshire-based high shear mixer manufacturer Silverson. “But supplying equipment to the food, pharmaceutical and personal care sectors means that business has remained fairly strong.
“We were faced with a surge in demand for equipment for production of hand sanitiser and related products. Initially we converted much of our fleet of demonstration machines for this – generally flameproof motors are required, for example, due to the high alcohol content – but we have had orders from all over the world for equipment for this application.”
Silverson is also supplying mixers to companies producing vaccines for Covid-19. “This has brought its own challenges. Just as the regulatory bodies have moved faster than they usually would, we have worked to produce high-specification equipment in the shortest possible time.”
The tight restrictions in place for almost a year now have created challenges for mixer and blender manufacturers.
“Obviously it is harder to bring customers onsite for practical testing, just as it is for our technical sales staff to make visits, so we have had to adapt to circumstances and offer a virtual trials service where the client can supply ingredients and we will video a demonstration of our equipment manufacturing their product.”
Like many process firms themselves, Silverson used 2020 to boost its research and development and refocus its business.
“We have taken on a food technology manager, a new position as we aim to be proactive and research the latest trends in food manufacturing and develop equipment to meet these needs. We have a number of new products in the later stages of development and are hoping to have them ready for launch in the early part of this year.